Let's rewind back to the 2009 MLS season, in which the Houston Dynamo finished just one point off of the Supporters' Shield. They lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Galaxy, in a match much more well-known for AEG's failure to pay the electric bill than the actual play on the pitch. It's sad that the two blackouts marred that match, because it was a very good one.*
Houston eventually lost in extra time, but the man of the match in the first 90 minutes was Stuart Holden. The American midfielder, now at Bolton Wanderers, was at his best in the hole behind Houston's strikers, dictating the play. Almost all of Houston's chances came through him. Holden had been a very good player for Houston for a couple of years, but there was something different about him in 2009, and particularly, the latter part of 2009. Following that season, he moved on to Bolton, where he has been one of that team's best players in the small period of time that he has actually been healthy.
Following Dwayne de Rosario's departure to Toronto FC at the end of the 2008 season, Holden became the primary playmaker in the following season. He stepped into the role and played extremely well in the spring, leading to his call-up to the United States B-team that went to the 2009 Gold Cup. There, he raised his profile with two fantastic goals and some all-around good performances for the team.
Holden was good before his USMNT call-up, but after the Gold Cup, he looked like a different player for the Dynamo. For the remainder of the season, he operated on a completely different level. The game appeared to slow down for him. Even teammates like current MLS MVP candidate Brad Davis, potential future USMNT player Geoff Cameron, and USMNT veterans Brian Ching and Ricardo Clark looked like they were playing at a level just below Holden. He was the best player on his team from June until the end of the year, controlling almost all of his team's games from his advanced midfield position.
Yesterday, our own Ryan Rosenblatt wrote that Brek Shea is unlike any American player ever. In many ways, he is correct. There has never been an American player with Shea's combination of physical ability, value to potential European suitors, and a body of work that proves that value is based on more than his natural talent. However, Holden is an excellent comparison, though there are two reasons the two are not directly comparable. One, that Holden walked away from the Dynamo on a free. Two, because his path to the league and a starting role was so much different.
However, when you watch Shea in 2011 with FC Dallas - particularly since he became first choice on the left wing for the national team under Jurgen Klinsmann - he looks like Stuart Holden did in the second half of the 2009 season. He looks like he is playing at a level different than that of his teammates. In his last two games, against Vancouver Whitecaps in the league and against Toronto FC in CONCACAF Champions League, the difference between Shea and his teammates was staggering. It looked like he was playing a different sport, and it's not as if the likes of Andrew Jacobson, Marvin Chavez and Daniel Hernandez are substandard players. They're excellent MLS starters, but everything about the way they played looked a step behind the man who was trying to combine with them to create scoring chances.
The New York Red Bulls have looked like a team lacking in chemistry in the latter part of this season, and half of their players appear to have a questionable level of work rate and desire to win. However, Thierry Henry is the most talented and accomplished player in the league. Rafael Marquez is close. Joel Lindpere's experience and work rate make him one of the best players in the league. If these players are playing at 80 percent of their full ability, they can beat anyone.
Forget cliches about heart, desire and chemistry. To beat a team with players of this quality, you need more than the intangibles. You need some quality yourself. Real Salt Lake had it in 2009 when they beat the Los Angeles Galaxy, and FC Dallas had the same last year in David Ferreira. Brek Shea provides that quality. With all due respect to FC Dallas, who are a very good team, Brek Shea is the only currently healthy player on the team who has a combined level of physical ability, technical quality and tactical acumen that is worthy of being in the same paragraph as Henry and Marquez.
Last season, FC Dallas got to the MLS Cup Final on the back of fantastic performances by the deserved MVP of the league, David Ferreira. He may return to the team for the Conference Final or MLS Cup Final if the team manages to get that far, but for the time being, Ferreira is unavailable. Brek Shea is the best healthy player on the team by some distance. New York's ability to self-implode could allow Dallas to win on Wednesday night without a stunning performance from Shea, but they're not getting far without a spectacular man of the match performance from their left winger.
*Two of Major League Soccer's best tacticians, Bruce Arena and Dominic Kinnear, were at their best in this match. It may sound dismissive or condescending, but it's not unfair to say that MLS matches are less often about tactical battles than matches at the highest level in Europe or in Copa Libertadores. It's getting better every year, but in 2009 especially, the level of tactical sophistication in the league wasn't great. This one, however, was a great tactical battle until the blackouts changed the game considerably. Houston was constantly building momentum, getting more bodies forward, and pressing higher up the pitch. They were simultaneously getting closer to an opening goal and getting closer to getting torched by a David Beckham through-ball on the counter. The blackouts totally ruined this, and it was a shame. Had they not occurred, it could have been one of the most interesting tactical battles in the history of the league.